Whatever happens to Labour, is bell tolling for the Dugdale leadership?

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Commentary by Bernard Thompson

Perhaps Labour really does need a new leader – in Scotland

The leadership contests in the Labour and Conservative parties have been as brutal and ugly as any seen in living memory of the Westminster parties.

You would have to go back to the Tory “Stop Heseltine Now!” campaign or the purges of Labour Militant and the left in Neil Kinnock’s 1980s Labour party to come close in terms of the personal demonisation of individuals and threats of looming catastrophe of the poisonous politics of recent weeks.

The Tories, as ever, oh-so-politely slip daggers between their rivals’ shoulder-blades before emerging with a pragmatic acceptance dressed up as a dignified respect for the political process.

Dugdale and Murphy: An uneasy relationship
Dugdale and Murphy: An uneasy relationship

Labour, it seems, have lost none of their bare-knuckle in-fighting approach, while remembering their communications training to come out to the media insisting that they are all only interested in the good of the party and Britain’s most vulnerable people.

But, on the Scottish political scene, the contrasts could barely be more stark.

Even for those who despise the Scottish Conservative leader Ruth Davidson’s policies, her performance as a political operator has been something of a tour de force.

CYNICAL MOVER

Having taken second place in the Holyrood elections, Davidson has somehow managed to reinvent her public image as a benign force in Scottish politics, something that the cynicism with which she campaigned against Scottish independence would seem to bely.

However, her media background and contacts appear to have stood her in good stead.

But Davidson has also made some very sharp political moves. Choosing to back Remain in the European Union referendum was easy enough – there was strong Scottish support for staying in the EU and her position matched that of her party leader David Cameron.

Going head-to-head with Boris Johnson on national television in a particularly aggressive style was entirely more bold.

Ruth Davidson: Always ready to park her tank on someone's lawn
Ruth Davidson: Always ready to park her tank on someone’s lawn

It may soon be forgotten just how hot a favourite Johnson was to be Britain’s next Prime Minister in the event of a Brexit vote but Davidson saw an opportunity to create “clear blue water” between her Scottish Tories and any Johnson-led government, to the extent of threatening to establish a party independent of Westminster.

It was scarcely mentioned that she has vehemently opposed such a move when she was elected Scottish Tory leader in 2011.

Davidson may have enjoyed a stroke of luck, with Johnson’s leadership bid being derailed and her chosen candidate of Theresa May being victorious, but she pounced on her opportunity.

Still riding the wave of UK-wide publicity and goodwill she was enjoying for her performance against Johnson, she pre-empted May’s arrival at 10 Downing Street with a Westminster press lunch, ensuring that she and Scotland were seen to be front-and-centre in Tory consciousness.

She was rewarded for these efforts with a position on the Queen’s Privy Council and a visit to Scotland by May on her first full day as PM.

It is no exaggeration to say that, as well as being leader of the second-largest Holyrood party, Davidson has manoeuvred herself into position as the second most influential politician in Scotland, something that only the most astute of observers would have predicted just two years ago.

DISHWATER LEADERSHIP

But while this elevation owes much to Davidson’s political opportunism and nous, it is also a reflection on the dishwater leadership of the Labour party in Scotland.

Kezia Dugdale is continually referred to as “nice” and we could do with some more of that in British politics. In that respect, she may not be so dissimilar to her UK party leader Jeremy Corbyn.

But what must frustrate Labour members and voters is the limp response of Dugdale while Davidson has been consigning Scottish Labour to a party “carping from the sidelines”.

Dugdale has her qualities, not least that she showed herself an able performer in the Scottish independence debates, though less so on the BBC’s Question Time, when she has occasionally looked out of her depth.

But Dugdale appears to lack any sense of demonstrable direction, never mind conviction. She ill-advisedly disparaged Corbyn’s potential as a PM before he was elected on the party’s biggest-ever mandate and consequently struggled to convincingly support him, though she initially appeared to try, telling the party conference she would be “working side by side with him to change our party”.

When the parliamentary party turned against Corbyn, Dugdale joined in, undermining the leader in a manner that may well have exposed the political naivety of someone who admitted that she had never even voted before joining Labour in 2005:

“I respect and really appreciate the mandate and the trust that many people in this room placed in me. If I then had to go into the Parliament and work with colleagues, 80% of which did not want me to be there, I would find my job incredibly difficult if not impossible.”

SCOTTISH CAMPAIGN

Those words may yet haunt Dugdale as many of her Scottish party colleagues – not least her deputy Alex Rowley – join Scotland for Corbyn, with MSP Neil Findlay having launched its campaign on Sunday.

Findlay’s words in praise of Angela Rayner, who supports Corbyn’s leadership, may be ominous for Dugdale: “She stepped up to the plate and served, unlike some others who deserted.” He went on to note that Rayner had been “loyal to the Labour party”.

It may be coincidental that Findlay used the same words attributed to Dugdale in a Guardian interview last Monday but, in choosing to draw such direct comparisons between herself and the leader she was calling on to resign, Dugdale has effectively eroded her own position of power within a party that has lost 13 MSPs already under her watch.

Despite that catastrophe, her mandate of 72.1% of Scottish Labour members has been seen to secure the legitimacy of her position, given that she, too, was elected as recently as October 2015.

But the logic of her position is that it would be legitimate for a majority of her Holyrood colleagues to ask her to step down, just as she has of Corbyn.

And there is good reason to think that they might.

Just a few days before the Holyrood elections, Dugdale told Owen Jones: “My job is to renew the party; to give people a much stronger sense of who we are, what we stand for and who we stand with.”

She admitted that would take time but, if the loss of more than a third of her MSPs didn’t show that Dugdale had, up to that point, failed to convey that sense of identity, it is difficult to see how her low-profile performance in recent weeks has done anything other than allow Davidson an empty stage.

OPPORTUNITY

And yet Corbyn’s election offered Dugdale a political opportunity that she failed to take at the time. Labour’s collapse at the Westminster elections in 2015 were largely seen as the fault of a dithering Miliband in England and Wales and a final exasperation with Johann Lamont and Jim Murphy’s conduct before and after the independence referendum, following the Blair and Brown years.

Corbyn’s victory represented a clean break from the New Labour project that had been so emphatically rejected and could have allowed a more politically-savvy operator to have rebranded Labour in Scotland, falling in behind the new leadership to offer Scottish voters contrition and a break from the past.

We will never know if Dugdale could have shaken off her association with Murphy, as his deputy, sufficiently to have retained some of those 13 lost seats yet, arguably, her performance as Scottish leader since the Brexit vote is more damning.

Faced with party disarray, Dugdale could have taken a leaf out of Davidson’s book in taking a firm stand and rejected the attempts to overthrow the leader elected one month before her on a similar electoral mandate.

That would have allowed her the opportunity to emphasise the Scottish party’s independence while disassociating it from the policies and personalities who had made Labour so toxic in Scotland over the past two years.

GETTING IT WRONG

Labour in Scotland is in deep crisis but a message to the effect that, “This isn’t the politics people today want. Jeremy has a democratic mandate to change the party, win voters’ trust and bring a new, fairer government to this country,” may just have started to resonate.

It still might if Dugdale could utilise that public-friendly persona to distance herself and her party from Blair, Brown, Darling, Murphy and Lamont. Effectively admitting that they had got it wrong and that it is only Labour who can offer an opposition to the SNP government, with the Scottish people’s interests at heart.

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In failing to do so, Dugdale appears to have snatched defeat from what should have been a win-win position. If Corbyn survived the current challenge, she would have enhanced the security of her personal position and her reputation within the party.

If he were to lose, she could legitimately “do a Davidson” and push for a Scottish party independent of London, with the freedom to pursue the local policies most likely to regain lost electoral ground.

It may not be too late for her to change course, the recent media focus having been so strongly on the UK party machinations and Davidson and Nicola Sturgeon’s performances in Scotland.

In that sense, Dugdale’s lack of visibility could play in her favour making a change of direction easier. And surely supporting Corbyn against Blairites within her party is a perfect focus for that “stronger sense of who we are, what we stand for and who we stand with” that she has been seeking.

If she won’t or can’t do that – appearing to continually hedge her bets in the hope of not displeasing the wrong people in her party – a challenge will surely come soon.

And having had – unlike Corbyn – a chance to go to the electorate in a national election, which she failed, it is one that Dugdale would do well to withstand.

As Dugdale is fond of using clichés, she should decide now to “step up to the plate” or, otherwise, read what is surely being written on the wall.